Fossil Fuels and Climate Change Already Threaten Human Health and Survival, Lancet Study Finds
The Lancet, one of the oldest peer-reviewed general medical journals in the world, has released its annual report on climate change’s threats to human health. The report found that severe impacts of climate change are no longer in the far off future — they are happening now.
The Lancet has been releasing the Countdown report for seven years, where it reviews progress toward the goals set in the 2015 Paris agreement and how climate change threatens the health and survivability of humans. The 2020 report warned that climate change could reverse positive health advances and trends from the past 50 years, but the latest report shows that human health is already “at the mercy of fossil fuels.”
The harsh impacts of climate change are already happening, in part due to overdependence on fossil fuels. In the past two years, extreme weather events have hit every continent and put more pressure on healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report noted floods, wildfires and extreme heat events that have displaced people, hurt economies and led to thousands of deaths around the world.
According to the study, heat-related deaths increased 68% from the 2000-2004 time frame to 2017-2021. Further, the study found that communities are at higher risk of emerging diseases and co-epidemics because climate change affects the spread of infectious diseases.
“Coastal waters are becoming more suitable for the transmission of Vibrio pathogens; the number of months suitable for malaria transmission increased by 31.3% in the highland areas of the Americas and 13.8% in the highland areas of Africa from 1951–60 to 2012–21, and the likelihood of dengue transmission rose by 12% in the same period,” the study explained.
As such, healthcare services are stretched to the limits amid the COVID-19 pandemic, other infectious diseases and extreme weather events that lead to injuries and deaths.
Climate change is also worsening food and water security for people around the world. Higher temperatures led to shorter growth seasons for maize, winter wheat and spring wheat, causing threats to crop yields. The report said that extreme heat may be linked to 98 million more people in 103 countries having moderate to severe food insecurity in 2020 compared to annual data for 1981 to 2010. Further, as many as 161 million more people experienced hunger and undernourishment in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic compared to 2019 data.
Much of these issues are exacerbated by the heavy reliance on fossil fuels, and the world is on track for 2.7°C of warming by 2100. While energy demand increases but is not sufficiently met, leaving healthcare facilities without enough electricity to care for patients in many parts of the world, fossil fuel companies are making record profits, the study said. Governments, particularly in high-income countries, continue to incentivize fossil fuel production and consumption despite their climate action commitments.
All is not lost — yet. The study defined this time as a pivotal moment, where health-centered responses could still work toward a low-carbon future. Countries must transition away from fossil fuels quickly and focus on the connections between and solutions to climate change and health.
“With countries facing multiple crises simultaneously, their policies on COVID-19 recovery and energy sovereignty will have profound, and potentially irreversible consequences for health and climate change,” the study concluded. “However, accelerated climate action would deliver cascading benefits, with more resilient health, food, and energy systems, and improved security and diplomatic autonomy, minimizing the health impact of health shocks. With the world in turmoil, putting human health at the center of an aligned response to these concurrent crises could represent the last hope of securing a healthier, safer future for all.”